On February 6, 2020, the RCMP entered Wet’suwet’en territory—without the Indigenous nation’s consent—to enforce construction of the Coastal GasLink Project, a pipeline for exporting gas in northern British Columbia. This action sparked protests in the form of railway blockades by the Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous groups across Canada. In this article, The Medium provides a brief overview of the conflict which speaks to a much broader issue of Indigenous territory ownership and their right to make decisions regarding their land.

The Wet’suwet’en, an Indigenous nation who reside in Northern British Columbia, have resisted pipelines for several years. They have set up various camps on proposed pipeline routes to prevent construction such as the Unist’ot’en Camp which was built in 2009 and later developed into a larger camp, healing center, space for visitors, and a checkpoint for people entering the territory. In November 2018, Coastal GasLink along with the government of British Columbia served an injunction to the Unist’ot’en Camp, threatening a lawsuit if they continued to obstruct the pipeline. The Wet’suwet’en continued to resist. In January 2019, the RCMP and Canadian military, both heavily armed, violently raided the Gidumt’en checkpoint, arrested over 12 people, and set up a roadblock to cut-off communication with and access to the Unist’ot’en Camp. On December 31, 2019, another injunction was served to remove any obstructions on the construction route. The Wet’suwet’en responded by issuing an eviction notice to Coastal GasLink, who, according to the Wet’suwet’en, were trespassing on the Indigenous people’s territory. Over the month, negotiations between Wet’suwet’en leaders and government officials have taken place. However, without any agreement from the Wet’suwet’en leaders, the RCMP moved into the territory anyways to allow construction to continue.

The Medium talked to Dr. Jennifer Adese, an associate professor of sociology at UTM specializing in Indigenous studies, about the conflict.

As Adese explains, Indigenous leadership involves two key players: band councils and hereditary chiefs. Band councils were formed by the Canadian government through the Indian Act of 1876. The councils are elected and are responsible for administering federal funds for daily community affairs. However, Adese says that the council system was often used to “depose the traditional leadership of an Indigenous nation to make it easier for the Canadian government to achieve its objectives of settlement and expansion.” On the other hand, the traditional governance system with hereditary chiefs predates colonization. Chiefs are responsible for maintaining the ancestral territory for future generations.

While in some cases the chief and the band council leader may be the same person, the positions can also be occupied by different individuals who have differing opinions, as is the case for the Wet’suwet’en nation. Five out of six council members signed agreements with the pipeline company based on the promise of jobs and economic development. There is also a portion of Wet’suwet’en members who support the project. According to Robert Skin, an elected councillor for the Skin Tyee Nation, which is part of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, Coastal GasLink has signed a benefit agreement with the Wet’suwet’en. The agreement includes money that would help alleviate a housing crisis and be used towards professional training.

The hereditary chiefs, however, continue to stand against the pipeline, as they have for several years, due to cultural, environmental, and economic reasons. Their disagreement raises two concerns: who has the authority to make decisions about Indigenous territory and how much agency they actually have when deciding.

In the Delgamuukw decision of 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Wet’suwet’en nation is governed by hereditary leadership. Based on this case, Indigenous groups argue that the band council’s stance on the pipeline is irrelevant, since the hereditary chiefs have authority. Additionally, according to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the state must receive “free, prior, and informed consent” from Indigenous groups for any projects which will affect the Indigenous people’s land, resources, or cultural sites in any way. Hence, before proceeding with the pipeline, of which 28 percent will pass through Wet’sewet’en territory, the government of Canada must receive the hereditary chiefs’ support.

Moreover, irrespective of who gets to make the decision, Adese raises the question regarding “whether ‘free’ choices can be made by people given this history? If the only options are to [either] consent to the pipeline’s current route and gain some compensation for it, or oppose it and have it happen anyway while being cut out of financial relationships – then people will sometimes make the choice to go along with it out of necessity.”

In response to the protests, the RCMP and other police forces across Canada have arrested several people, conducted ID checks, and more. Adese describes how “the RCMP finds their origins in the Northwest Mounted Police, Canada’s first national police force created as Canada sought to extend its territorial claims westward into the prairies. As such, [the RCMP] has always been in a difficult relationship [with the] Indigenous people it was tasked with surveilling [and] policing.” While the RCMP is following their mandate and the law, by doing so, Canada continues to violate the UNDRIP by interfering with unceded Wet’suwet’en lands.

Moving forward, the Wet’suwet’en Chiefs are continuing to fight. Their demands as of January 7, 2020 are that construction of the pipeline ceases, the state and RCMP respect their rights as outlined in UNDRIP, the RCMP withdraws from their land, and that the government and RCMP do not use force to remove people from the land. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called the rail blockades “unacceptable” and claims that he “will exhaust every effort to resolve this [situation] peacefully.”

Adese finishes off by stating that “we all need to become better acquainted with the history of this country and with the foundation of the relationship between Indigenous people and Canada in order to make sense of the current reality.”

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